Houseman, B., R. Ruess, T. Hollingsworth, and D. Verbyla. 2020. Can Siberian alder N-fixation offset N-loss after severe fire? Quantifying post-fire Siberian alder distribution, growth, and N-fixation in boreal Alaska. PLoS ONE 15(9): e0238004.
Fire severity affects both ecosystem N-loss and post-fire N-balance. Climate change is altering the fire regime of interior Alaska, although the effects on Siberian alder (Alnus viridis ssp. fruticosa) annual N-fixation input (kg N ha-1 yr-1) and ecosystem N-balance are largely unknown. We established 263 study plots across two burn scars within the Yukon-Tanana Uplands ecoregion of interior Alaska. Siberian alder N-input was quantified by post-fire age, fire severity, and stand type. We modeled the components of Siberian alder N-input using environmental variables and fire severity within and across burn scars and estimated post-fire N-balance using N-loss (volatilized N) and N-gain [biological N-fixation and atmospheric deposition]. Mean nodule-level N-fixation rate was 70% higher 11-years post-fire (12.88 ± 1.18 μmol N g-1 hr-1) than 40-years post-fire (7.58 ± 0.59 μmol N g-1 hr-1). Structural equation modeling indicated that fire severity had a negative effect on Siberian alder density, but a positive effect on live nodule biomass (g nodule m-2 plant-1). Post-fire Siberian alder N-input was highest in 11-year old moderately burned deciduous stands (11.53 ± 0.22 kg N ha-1 yr-1), and lowest in 11-year old stands that converted from black spruce to deciduous dominance after severe fire (0.06 ± 0.003 kg N ha-1 yr-1). Over a 138-year fire return interval, N-gains in converted black spruce stands are estimated to offset 15% of volatilized N, whereas N-gains in burned deciduous stands likely exceed volatilized N by an order of magnitude. High Siberian alder density and nodule biomass drives N-input in burned deciduous stands, while low N-fixer density (including Siberian alder) limits N-input in high severity black spruce stands not underlain by permafrost. A severe fire regime that converts black spruce stands to deciduous dominance without alder recruitment may induce progressive N-losses which alter boreal forest ecosystem patterns and processes.